Garden Geekery

Two Hives Down

So I’ve been putting off writing this for a while, because I’m so upset with myself for letting it happen. But mistakes are how you learn, and this could help someone else or help me remember for next time.

I lost two of my hives so far this winter, and they were both my fault. The poor things didn’t have enough honey for the winter, and they starved.

When I harvested the honey this year, there were a lot of supers on the hives, especially Andoria. I assumed that they were all full of honey, so I took a couple off the top, figuring they’d have plenty to get them through the winter. But when I checked them as I was winterizing them later in the fall, it turns out that all those other boxes were empty. I tried feeding some of the honey back to them, but it wasn’t enough.

Now, you can still get a colony through the winter if they run out of honey by feeding them dry sugar. But you need to get the sugar on there as soon as they need it. Bees generally eat through their honey stores moving from the bottom of the hive to the top. So if they’re at the top of the hive in the middle of winter, you know they’re out of food and you need to feed them.

I’d checked them in December, and they were all still alive. Checked again in early January, and Andoria was dead. I didn’t think they’d be out of food so early in the year. I should have known to check them earlier, since I’d known they were low on stores to begin with. (One thing to note: There actually was still some honey left in the hive, but the bees hadn’t eaten it. Sometimes bees are weird and don’t move sideways to get to all of the honey, so they miss some of it. If they’d eaten it all, I probably would have gotten sugar to them before they starved. So I’d say this one was probably 80% my fault and 20% a fluke.)

At the same time, the Vulcan hive was still alive, but I’d just barely saved them. They were all at the top of the hive and would likely have starved very shortly afterward, if I hadn’t checked and given them sugar when I did. I checked them again a week or so later and gave them more sugar, as they’d eaten all that I’d given them the last time.

Then we had the February from hell. It was so incredibly cold and windy for weeks, that I wasn’t able to open the hive to check on them. It’s a bad idea to open the hives when it’s so cold and windy. But when I did finally get a chance, it was too late–the Vulcan hive had starved. I should have risked it and checked on them even during the cold snap.

The Tellar Prime hive has so far made it ok. They were the new hive that I created this year as a split from the other two. They’re small and had a good amount of honey going in. As of my latest check yesterday, they’re alive and just getting to the top of the hive now. I gave them a bunch of sugar so it’s there when they’re ready for it. I don’t know that they’re very healthy (dysentery can become a problem when it’s too cold for them to make cleansing flights during the winter, and I saw some signs of it in the hive), but at least they’re still alive.

Lesson 1: Check early and often, especially when you know they’re starting the winter low on stores.

Lesson 2: Yes, it’s a bad idea to open the hive when it’s extremely cold. But if the alternative is likely starvation, it’s worth the risk.

Lesson 3: Don’t assume what’s in those boxes. Yes, assuming can make an ass out of you and me—but it can also kill your bees.

3 thoughts on “Two Hives Down

  1. Phillip

    Shrews got into my hives two winters ago and I felt at the time that I couldn’t do anything about it because it was so bitterly cold, I couldn’t risk chilling and killing the bees. I subsequently lost 6 out of my 8 colonies to shrew predation, and the colonies that survived are still recovering.

    My lesson learned: Cold weather shouldn’t stop me if there’s a good chance the bees will die without my immediate help. I’ve also noticed that the bees will go into a stupor when exposed to cold air — they look dead, but they’re not dead. They come back to life as soon as the hive warms up again.

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